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A day like a dream

Bertha Means spent a lifetime standing up for her rights. This week in Denver, she experienced a moment she thought might never come.

August 29, 2008|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — Who can say for certain where the tears came from? There were the days picking cotton as a girl, her legs scratched and bleeding from the plants' sharp spurs. There were the restaurants that wouldn't take her order, the credit union that wouldn't accept her application and, later, the swimming hole where her kids weren't allowed to swim with the white children.

The barriers of segregation came down so gradually that Bertha Means never experienced an epiphany -- one defining moment to celebrate freedom's progress. But the African American great-grandmother and civil rights pioneer finally had that moment Thursday night a long way from her Texas home.

The 88-year-old delegate to the Democratic National Convention said she felt in her bones what Michelle Obama called "the current of history [meeting] this new tide of hope." She found herself crying, uncharacteristically, first when she listened to the candidate's wife's speech Monday night. When Hillary Rodham Clinton moved to make Barack Obama the unanimous choice of the convention during the delegate roll call, tears again streamed down her face.

As Means watched a 47-year-old black man hurdle over one of the highest barriers in American life -- nomination as a major party's presidential candidate -- she applauded and laughed and waved an American flag. "Isn't it fantastic? Isn't it fantastic?" she called out as fireworks exploded overhead.

A night earlier, the retired school administrator explained her week of high emotion.

"I was remembering the people who died to get where we are right now," she said. "People who gave their lives to be able to vote, to be able to own a home, to be able to live where they wanted to live. . . . All of that just came back, and it brought tears to my eyes. It's a new day. It's a new day. And I'm just so pleased."

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Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois still must win over millions of Americans to take the White House. Even fervent supporters acknowledge that he has a long way to go to persuade many voters, particularly those who worry about his relative youth and inexperience.

But Means and other African Americans who lived through much bleaker times chose on this night to think about the distance already traveled, the slights overcome, and to celebrate an achievement some weren't sure they would ever see. A tribute earlier in the evening ensured no one would forget that Obama's 44-minute acceptance speech came 45 years to the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told the nation: "I have a dream."

Means overcame a childhood of near-poverty and uneven schooling to become a teacher, marry a college professor and raise five children.

Her paternal grandfather, James B. Sadler, was believed to be the son of a slave and her white master. That relationship made him relatively privileged, for a slave. He received $500 along with his freedom after the Civil War, according to a family history.

Sadler used the money to buy 545 acres not far from what is now Crawford, Texas, where the family farmed and Sadler founded one of the state's earliest African American churches. He also began a tradition of scholarship that has carried through to many of Means' 13 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.

But the relative privilege disintegrated when her father died. She was just 4, yet old enough to join her brothers and sisters and their mother traveling around Texas each fall to pick cotton.

"I always said, 'Whatever job you do, do the best you can,' so I was good at picking cotton," Means recalled this week.

"But when I saw the white man weighing the cotton, I said, 'I got to get that position.' I was always looking to change things."

The Sadler children missed months of classes while they were in the fields, but Bertha took her books along and managed to graduate from high school on time. She enrolled in a small black liberal arts college, Huston-Tillotson College, where she fell in love with a young mathematics professor, James H. Means.

Maybe it was her solid upbringing or a personal ethic of self-respect, but Means was one black woman who didn't always remain silent in the face of ethnic slurs.

When a cook at a cafe called her a nigger, she taunted him in a Stepin Fetchit-style accent, then left him with a grill full of burgers she would not pay for.

Her family's defiance of the old ways began in earnest in 1960 when her oldest daughter, Joan, one of the first black students at Austin High School, was told she wouldn't be able to attend the senior class picnic, which was being held at Barton Springs, then a segregated swimming hole in a city park.

Joan Means was an outstanding student who would go on to the University of Chicago. Her exclusion from Barton Springs infuriated many of her classmates, including whites and Latinos. Joan and the other students, along with a group of parents, decided they would not accept the ban.

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